2020 04 – Slow Government Reactions to Covid-19

Making Up For Lost Ground

Mark Langhammer

Today is the first day of the great schools shut-down. Last week felt like a whirlwind of meetings – with education employers, the Minister, the Department of Education, other unions – culminating in the UK government finally waking up to the extent of the Covid-19 or Corona virus and implementing a close-down of schools and a whole range of economic activity.

With a vaccine perhaps 18 months away, it seemed obvious that non-pharmaceutical interventions aimed at reducing contact and disease transmission required both mitigation aimed at reducing peak health-service demand and suppression. We got the former, not the latter.

Everyone is doing their best, in trying times. I’ve no doubt that teachers will do the right things but “Oh-Boy” are we not badly prepared? The UK (and, as a consequence, Northern Ireland) are starting from a long way back.

First reactions are rarely the best. Our education system worried first about the integrity of GCSE and A-level exams and wanted schools to remain open. The National Education Union (NEU) argued that this was for the birds.  A divided Stormont Executive told us they were following scientific and medical advice from the Chief Medical Officer. He, in turn, was following UK advice. NEU wrote to the Prime Minister asking to see the advice.  We didn’t get it! What was clear in Northern Ireland was that two different policy responses to the same scientific and medical advice couldn’t make sense.

South Korea, Taiwan and (after initial hesitancy) China have reacted to C-19 with alacrity and scale to stamp out the disease. Scandinavian nations like Norway and Denmark have cushioning from much more generous welfare safety nets than we do. Sovereign wealth funds step into the breach, manufacturing is instructed to orientate towards socially necessary tasks and people – yes people – are put first. Not here, at least initially!

The free-market mindset gripping the UK initially saw a laissez-faire approach to the virus threat. Soft guidance rather than direction and instruction. Boris Johnston’s government first toyed with the idea to allow up to 60% of the population to contract C-19 which would lead – they thought – to a so-called “herd immunity”. The Daily Telegraph’s Jeremy Warner made clear that this approach was not unintended: “Not to put too fine a point on it, from an entirely disinterested economic perspective, the Covid-19 might even prove mildly beneficial in the long-term by disproportionately culling elderly dependents.” (Daily Telegraph 3rd March). Reliance on ‘herd immunity’ and a spot of the Downing Street ‘nudge’ theory beloved of Dominic Cummings were the order of the day.

Our welfare systems, sick-pay, unemployment benefit, homeless provision and the absence of protections for ‘gig’ workers, the low-paid and others throw into sharp focus that we are reaping the seeds of ten years of austerity and forty years of “post-industrial” free-market ideology. The food security of citizens, growing no more than 50% at home, seems reckless policy now. This “feed off the world” policy is long standing and derives from Empire days when the Royal Navy could enforce its will on all-comers.

The UK Government, initially, dithered. It was prepared to treat the welfare of its citizens in a cavalier fashion. So what changed? It took two threats to “call out” the UK government. First, the threat of Macron’s France closing the border to UK traffic, and second, the potential for Imperial College’s MRC Centre for Global Infectious Diseases to release the detail of its advice to Government.[1]

The free-market mind-set, focussed on financialised capitalism to the detriment of manufacturing and productive economic activity, is at a distinct disadvantage in this crisis.  Authoritarian China can commandeer the production of millions of surgical masks, respirator masks, infection test kits. Fourteen temporary hospitals were built in Wuhan alone within a month!

By contrast, the UK’s testing capacity is negligible. In Northern Ireland we appear to have no testing capacity at all. Medical staff have not yet been tested, let alone citizens. Production of necessary equipment has been out-sourced! Switching the priorities of what’s left of the manufacturing sector requires time, commitment and support. We haven’t even managed the distribution of toilet rolls.

Credit where it is due, albeit late in the day, in his third emergency budget in a fortnight, Friday’s measures announced by Chancellor Sunak guaranteed 80% of employees’ wages up to £2,500 a month. Hurray! One cheer! The scale of what we face needs a proportionate response. The UK was able to bail-out delinquent and degenerate banks with open-ended liquidity. This C-19 requires similar scale response – this time to bail out the citizens.

But we’re facing this from a long way back, with a lot of ground to catch up.

[1] Summarised in The Observer, 22 March 2020, p 27-32. Full report at https://www.imperial.ac.uk/mrc-global-infectious-disease-analysis